The setting was magical: a modern rig of a stage placed at one end of the massive cortyard at the centre of the 16th century El Badi Palace in Marrakech. As the sun began to set, the heat of the day lifted and hundreds of candles set in lanterns around the place began to twinkle. The famous storks of the Kasbah (King’s Quarters) returned to roost on the crumbling ochre walls to watch the scene unfold. We were here to experience the magic – not only of Marrakech, but of one of jazz’s greatest legends, Herbie Hancock.
As the audience settled in their seats, the sky darkened. The US Ambassador to Morocco, HE Dwight L. Bush Sr, welcomed us to the evening’s event as the stars appeared overhead in the cloudless sky to compete with the spotlights of the stage. The occasion was a special collaboration between jazz pianist and composer, Herbie Hancock, vocalist extraordinaire, Dee Dee Bridgewater and the young talent of the Thelonius Monk Institute of Jazz Ensemble.
We were there to celebrate cultural linkages between the US and Morocco and to recall the common roots of popular and spiritual music on two continents either side of the Atlantic Ocean. Both US jazz and Moroccan gnaoua music draw on origins in sub-Saharan Africa add trace their lineage through a common experience of slavery, hardship and exile.
The concert opened with a composition by Carmen Staaf of the Thelonius Monk Institute’s Ensemble before the youngsters welcomed the masters on stage. After introducing herself in faultless French (she is, after all, is the first American to be inducted to the Haut Conseil de la Francophonie), Dee Dee Bridgewater began with a stunning rendition of the jazz standard, All of Me, and the audience was hooked. Herbie Hancock came to the stage and followed with his own classic, Cantaloupe Island. The fourth piece was a one-off, improvised piece of pure jazz performance; a collaboration between Hancock’s piano and Bridgewater’s incredible voice. As they sat, side by side, on the piano stool, the energy flowed between them and around the palace courtyard, sweeping everyone along with it. Dee Dee Bridgewater is able to create sounds and melodies in an unparalleled range. One minute she is a soulful jazz diva, the next scat rapper; in one song she impersonated a trombone, in another she held the high notes like a classically-trained opera star.
It was through the prolific sampling of Herbie Hancock’s early works from the 60s, such as Cantaloupe Island and Watermelon Man, that I came to know and appreciate jazz in my late teens – almost 30 years after their original release. Through the fusion of jazz, hip hop, funk and house music by artists such as US3, Digable Planets, Pizzicato Five and Guru’s Jazzmatazz Project, and over several nights spent at the Mojo Club on Hamburg’s Reeperbahn, I worked my way back through the catalogue of the old jazz labels such as Blue Note.
Last night, I came to appreciate jazz all the more. In the sax, I heard the acid jazz of my youth. Behind Dee Dee’s Afro Blue vocals and woven through Herbie’s keys, I recognised the ancient African 5-beat rhythm which I have come to know so well as the basis of Cuban salsa and son, but which permeates almost all music of African origin. And under that starry sky on the edge of the Sahara it all felt as though it belonged in my polyphonic Moroccan present. Roll on next week’s Essaouira Gnaoua Festival for more inter-cultural and pan-African musical fusion!